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Hiking Ruins of Southern New England

War Memorial Park, West Bridgewater

By Marjorie Turner Hollman

Are you interested in history, archeology, geology or simply enjoy getting outside for a walk? If so, Hiking Ruins of Southern New England is the book for you (available for pre-order, to be published April 2, 2024). The first section of the book offers basic practices for safely spending time outside walking trails. The guide documents in total forty locations in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Detailed maps and directions make this a really useful tool for discovering places to walk that you may never have heard of.

You will find detailed histories of the various destinations included. Both authors are academics, located in Connecticut. Not surprisingly, that is where the majority of the listed trails are found. Several trails are also identified in Rhode Island and the remainder are in Massachusetts.

Terms I had never heard of, like firebacks (the back of stone fireplaces), are explained. Color photos help readers understand what to look for when visiting specific areas. Reading each chapter is not just an archeological education. The authors include historical information about each area, with explanations of the significance of these sites. An unspoken but clear point is that history and archeology are inextricably intertwined. 

Helpful details in each chapter include an address, information about trail surfaces, whether dogs are welcome and how to get there. The work required to accumulate all this information is considerable and difficult to obtain without actually visiting each trail. If you are looking for information to help make educated decisions about visiting outdoor destinations, this book is a great place to start. Understanding what is not obvious, yet in plain sight, will add to the simple enjoyment of exploring the outdoors.

If locals in the Bellingham area are interested in exploring ruins nearby, you need only venture to the High Street athletic fields in Franklin. Head to the back of the field. Look for the trail kiosk and follow the red arrows to the Upper Charles River. (Yes, the mighty Charles does flow through Bellingham, although it is of modest size as it passes by us.) Next to the river you will find stone foundations partially buried by brushy plants. Bellingham’s first place of worship (the Baptists) was on High Street. The stone foundations next to the river could be what remain of an early Bellingham home, perhaps a Baptist congregation member? The Charles River at this same spot hosts remnants of a dam that was most likely a seasonal power source for inhabitants. 

Stone remnants of a mill race remain just off a trail behind Stall Brook Elementary School. Water power was essential to operating mills throughout New England. The Stall Brook in Bellingham was a seasonal source of power, but the mill is long gone. The remnants of the dam squeeze the Stall Brook into an impressive steep cascade that then flows into the Charles River, not far downstream.

West Hill dam, in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, has foundation walls that appear to have been a barn or house structure. The ruins are quite near the swimming area, next to a trail in the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood control area. 

Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk hosts stone structures that once were essential to the operation of the various mills that were constructed at the site over the centuries. The picturesque dam and cascade are visible remains of the mill infrastructure that was an essential part of the local economy in days gone by.

An impressive stone structure can be found at the Mowry Conservation area in Smithfield, Rhode Island. A part of the Woonsquatucket watershed, this area also hosts stunning rock overhangs, carved out by the swiftly flowing river that bisects the property.

A treasured town landmark, War Memorial Park, in Bridgewater, features an intricate network of canals and sluiceways. The channeled water powered multiple industries located at the site over several hundred years.

Stone walls are found almost exclusively in New England and New York State, (in the U.S.) and are reminders of the strenuous labor expended by farmers to create boundaries, mark the edges of roads, and enclose grazing animals. Walls meandering through woodland were built on the edges of open farm fields. Once the land ceased being farmed, shrubs, then trees soon filled in the open spaces.

Triad bridge bridge abutment

The more you get outside, the more of these nearly forgotten ruins you will discover. Keep your eyes open. Look alongside streams where dry laid stone structures tell the story of power sources erected in a bygone era. You may be surprised at the quantity of ruins that remain in your own community.

The variety of ruins included in Hiking Ruins of Southern New England will expand your understanding of life in New England in earlier times. The detailed maps of the sometimes rugged trails included are worth the cost of the book. The multiple color photos with explanations of what each structure reveals is eye-opening. After seeing the distinct characteristics of these stone structures, you will get better at recognizing the various types of ruins that remain in plain sight. Sometimes you may discover that they are right around the corner from where you live. 

Spring is coming. Make plans to get outside and start exploring and have fun!

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